“Becoming the Body”

1998 Covenant Conference
Closing Worship, Saturday, November 7, 1998

“Becoming the Body”

[Luke 14: 15 – 24]

by John Buchanan
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, and
Moderator, 208th General Assembly

Excerpts from this sermon appear in Covenant Connections #5.

Thank you, Isaiah Jones, for the richness of your contribution to this Covenant Network. We’re very, very grateful for your art. Thank you.


There are two people who’ve been working sometimes behind the scenes and sometimes in front of the scenes, and we haven’t thanked them yet. My colleague on the staff of Fourth Church, John Wilkinson, and Tim Hart-Andersen, have been very instrumental in making all this happen. Please join me as we thank the two of them for their good work.


I am personally grateful for the preachers and speakers who have continued to feed us all throughout this conference. Joanna Adams, who with typical overstatement–she being an Atlanta Braves fan, which is kind of an athletic equivalent of an overstatement– said last night that she had to follow 170,000 speeches. It wasn’t quite that many. At least she got to preach in a pulpit!

I want to thank all of you for caring enough about this Church of ours to be here, to invest your time and your energy and your resources and your passion and, best of all, your high hopes in this experience together.

This is an important moment in the life of the Presbyterian Church. Our friends in the Coalition have issued a Vision Statement of what the Presbyterian Church ought to be. I’m grateful for the effort and love which that statement represents. There’s much about it that I can affirm. It is a document, however, that invites critique and conversation and discussion. It includes proposals and assumptions about us with which many of us do not agree, so let the discussion begin!

This is a moment in the life of my Church which is new for me and, I sense, for many of you: a moment in which we find ourselves in disagreement and even some dissent from our denomination, and yet committed to be supportive and faithful to the Church we love while not abandoning commitments and convictions about justice and inclusivity which this Church has nurtured in us.

We are going to think a long time about what we’ve experienced these last few days. We’ll think with intentionality and intensity about what we’ve experienced, then we will go forward and continue to work for constructive and faithful change. We will stay together as the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. We will be a presence in the courts of our Church. We will do theology, and we will engage in dialogue, and we will stand with our friends who have been excluded.

Thank you again for being here.

Let us pray.

Dear God, we come here out of our separateness. We are different people; we have different stories; and we come from different places this morning-some nearby, some from all over our country. On this day, help us to move beyond our differences and to know something of the oneness you have given us, and use the experience we have shared in these days together in your ongoing project of reconciling the whole world through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The Gospel lesson is from one of my favorite chapters in Scripture, the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. William Buckley says that if you mention God at a New York City dinner party one time, you’ll be met with stony silence. If you mention God twice, you will not be invited back to dinner. This is a story about social awkwardness and an embarrassing moment at a dinner party.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching Him; and a good thing they were, because the first thing He did was break a law by healing a person on the Sabbath. And then when He arrived, He noticed how the guests were clamoring for places of honor and He issued a little critique about that social climbing, and then He looked around again and saw who was at the table and He instructed the host on who he should have invited instead of the current guest list, and at that terribly awkward moment, this passage that I love begins:

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to Him: “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Then Jesus said to him: “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner, he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I’ve bought a piece of land and I must go out and see it. Please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I’ve bought five yoke of oxen and I’m going to try them out. Please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I’ve just been married and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.'” [Luke 14: 15 – 24]

This is the word of the Lord.

[Congregation] Thanks be to God.

You are the body of Christ, and individually, members of it. That’s not my favorite metaphor. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that I want to be the body of Christ. If I remember correctly, the actual body of Christ wasn’t all that comfortable and, as a matter of fact, ended up being crucified. And furthermore, to be part of a body means to live with and tolerate and live in some sort of harmony with other members of the body, to work with them, to be in sync, to do my job as efficiently and effectively as I can, but to honor and respect and work for the success of the whole enterprise. As St. Paul put it, “What good is a hand without an eye?”

Well, to be perfectly candid, I don’t know about some of the other members of the body. Groucho Marx said that he would not belong to a club that would have him as a member! Well, if I’m reading their documents correctly, I’m not sure they’d want to be part of the same body that would have me as a member. Frankly, sometimes I feel the same about them.

You are the body of Christ. It is one of the great and abiding mysteries of our faith.

When author and poet Kathleen Norris moved from New York City to South Dakota to her family’s homestead, she found herself drawn to the church, the Presbyterian Church, and thinking for the first time in a long time about Christian faith. As you know, ultimately she became a member of that little Presbyterian congregation in Lemon, South Dakota. She participates in the life of the congregation, serves as a supply pastor on occasion, she even cooks in the kitchen. She writes about that church with grace and compelling integrity. Her books Cloister Walk and Dakota were bestsellers, so is her most recent book, Amazing Grace, in which there is this wonderful passage.

She writes:

From the outside, church congregations can look like remarkably contentious places, full of hypocrites who talk about love while fighting each other tooth and nail. This is the reason many people give for avoiding them. On the inside, however, it is a different matter, a matter of struggling to maintain unity as “the body of Christ” given the fact that we have precious little uniformity. I have only to look at the congregation I know best, the one I belong to. We are not individuals who have come together because we are like-minded. That is not a church, but a political party. We are like most healthy churches, I think, in that we can do pretty well when it comes to loving and serving God, each other, and the world; but God help us if we have to agree about things! I could test our “uniformity” by suggesting a major remodeling of the sanctuary, or worse, that Holy of Holies — the church kitchen. But,” she says, “I value my life too much.” [Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 272]

And then Kathleen, who preached so winsomely to us at the General Assembly a couple of years ago, digs in and says: “The church is like the Incarnationitself, a shaky proposition. It’s a human institution, full of ordinary people, sinners like me, who do and say cruel things. But it is also a divinely inspired institution, full of good purpose, which partakes of a unity far greater than the sum of its parts.” Did you get that? “partakes of a unity far greater than the sum of its parts.” “That is why it’s called the body of Christ.” [P. 273]

“You are the body of Christ,” St. Paul wrote to the people in Corinth. That’s never been a favorite image of the Church for me. I have trouble with it, not because it’s not a good metaphor. It’s a brilliant metaphor. The human body is almost a perfect example of the principle of unity and diversity. Furthermore, everybody can understand it without having it explained or exegeted. Everybody’s got a body; everybody experiences the principle daily. Everything works together for the good of the whole, and if one thing isn’t working, nothing feels right. We all know what that means. 

Douglas John Hall, a Canadian Reformed theologian, has produced a major work, Theology in a North American Context. In Volume Three, Confessing the Faith, Hall argues that the unity of the Church is a reflection of the oneness of God, and that God created oneness of the whole human family, not just the Christian part, but the whole family. So when the Church is divided, says Hall, something basic about the Judeo-Christian faith is violated. Unity, says Hall, is not incidental, but essential to the Christian faith. Ecumenism is not a luxury; it’s certainly not a liberal plot. It’s part of the evangelical witness to which we are called.

Hall writes, “Christians cannot accept as normal a plethora of institutions and sects, divided and distrustful of one another, claiming to have been formed by a word of reconciliation. Such a situation is a scandal and a travesty. One is amazed, reflecting upon our sad divisions, that anyone outside the churches would bother to take such a religion seriously.”

Oneness and unity of Christian people is part of the way we witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But even to say that, as I just have, is to experience the irony that Hall identifies. There are, in fact, as we all know, thousands of denominations in this country, many of them claiming an absolute corner on the truth.

Michael Lindvall, pastor of our church in Ann Arbor, reflecting on the tendency of Christians down through the centuries to discern the truth and then absolutize the truth and then attack everyone who does not discern the truth in the same way we do, wants every one of us to remember that none of us gets all the truth. Or, as friend Cynthia Campbell puts it, “Only God is God.”

And that understanding is part of the reason we’re Protestants. It’s what Paul Tillich called “the Protestant principle.” The inherent sense of limitations, limitation of our human institutions, even our own beloved religious institutions; the willingness, the critical necessity, to engage in critical thinking, not only about the institutions and creeds and ideas that we don’t like from the other side, but our own; a caution about any claim to certainty, that human tendency to embrace my truth and then propose that it is the only truth, and then to conclude that if you don’t see it the way I do, you don’t belong in the body any more; the intellectual and theological modesty, which is the first characteristic of monotheistic and Christological thinking.

I was caught by Lindvall’s advice. He says, “We Protestants have to learn to be more Catholic.” Our chief heresy has always been our temptation to schism leading to the old Roman barb that the ultimate Protestant is one who belongs to a denomination of his or her own. There’s something about us, this Presbyterian Reformed way of being the Church, that turns to conflict and division as a way to resolve our differences. It’s not a very pretty sight, and it reflects tragically a similar dynamic at loose in our society and world. Nationalism, racial, ethnic identity, pride, tribalism threaten the world all over, threaten the fabric of the human community in the Sudan, Northern Ireland, Central Europe. Even as their forces are withdrawing, Serbian troops continue to kill men, women, and children simply because they’re Albanians. A bomb exploded this morning in a marketplace in Jerusalem, setting back the peace process. God help us.

But do you want to hear something really interesting? Something preposterous on the surface of it? The Church is God’s alternative to the propensity of the world to divide and contend and fight along lines of tribe, clan, race, and religion. The Church represents God’s precious alternative vision.

That’s what that wonderful story in Luke 14 is about. A man gave a dinner party, sent out invitations, accepted all around because he was an important man. When the time for the dinner arrives, the guests start to drop out, offering a variety of good and not-so-good excuses. The host is offended. His response is to get more guests, not the kind who normally are invited to dinner, not the kind, as a matter of fact, who are at that very moment sitting around that table, invited by a well-to-do and proper man around town. “Go out onto the highway,” says the man, “and invite to dinner specifically those who never get invited to anybody’s dinner, specifically those who are excluded by cultural customs and by your religion.”

This is a very different picture of what God’s kingdom looks like. And it’s a radically different notion of how God’s people are related: strangers become guests, outsiders suddenly are insiders. An Episcopal cathedral full of homeless people in Atlanta holding their candles. All are welcome, because of Jesus Christ in God’s heart. In God’s reimagined creation, all are one.

Well, in a world divided on the basis of boundaries and barriers, there are frighteningly none here. There are no barriers. There are no barriers of genetics or gender or race or physical incapacity. There are no barriers, apparently, of religion or theology or ideology. There are no barriers even of morality, no barriers of sexual orientation. All are welcome, and the host will not be satisfied until all are present and every seat is filled. It’s a gorgeous picture of the kingdom of God and the essential unity of the whole human family.

Well, of all things, scientists are now telling us that unity, oneness, is the organizing principle of the universe. That’s what scientists and theologians talk about these days when they get together, and they’re getting together a lot, by the way. Ever since Sir Isaac Newton, physics has understood the universe to operate on the principles of predictable, underlying mathematical rules. You can understand the universe by taking it apart, looking at the separate, isolated parts and systems and laws, and then reassembling it. But then someone, not so very long ago, made an amazing discovery that the act of observing an electron causes the electron to act differently. Suddenly, we’re in a whole new place! Suddenly, we’re bound together in an invisible web of relationship that we didn’t even know was there.

You’ve heard or read about the popularized version of this effect: it’s called the Butterfly Effect. Every time a butterfly beats its wings, apparently every time a cat yawns or a baby sneezes, the whole web has to make an adjustment. It’s got a fancy name. It’s called the Chaos Theory.

Well, Barbara Brown Taylor says that the Chaos Theory is simply what St. Paul meant by “the body of Christ.” That great mystery! That mystery of God that binds us together whether we feel like it or understand it or even like it!

Taylor helped me see something I’d never noticed before, I think because I didn’t want to see it. I should have. I was too busy worrying about all the other members with whom I’m not sure I want to be a body. Taylor says, St. Paul’s not urging me to agree with this metaphor and to start trying to act like it. We’re not being asked to evaluate this proposal, to reduce it to an overture and vote on it. We’re being told something. We’re being told something about who we are essentially as men and women, whether we understand it or like it or not.

This truth is beyond our consent or liking. This is truth beyond our theological and credal formulation. It’s a truth, brothers and sisters, beyond essential tenets or confessions or vision statements for the future of our Church. It is this: You are the body of Christ. Jesus Christ has made you His body. The God who is incarnate in Jesus Christ has a vision of the human race, and for better or worse, you’re it!

Is it an illusion? Is it an idealistic dream? Or is it a description of who we are essentially, that we will work very hard to avoid and keep hidden?

Sometimes the reality breaks through. Sometimes the reality compels us, in spite of everything we’re doing to try to deny it. A few weeks ago at Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago, on the University of Chicago Campus, four great American churches, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, United Church of Christ, with separate histories and cultures and vocabularies, met, at all places, at the baptismal font and around the table of our Lord, and tried to say something about our unity.

It did yesterday for me, and, I’m sure, for many of you, as all day long we were fed the bread of life, and at the end of that incredible day, ate the bread together. Sometimes it happens gloriously, with organs and trumpets and bright-colored vestments, and sometimes when we gather around the table, sometimes very modestly in ways not much more dramatic than that banquet table on that incredible day when Jesus told the story.

Let me tell you about one of them. A good member of the congregation I serve was dying, dying of AIDS. When I visited him in the hospital, I noticed on his bed stand the bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie, conversations between Mitch Albom, a sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press, and Professor Morrie Schwartz, his favorite professor at Brandeis University. Schwartz was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Albom discovered it, went to see him; they had weekly conversations, and out of it came the book, Tuesdays with Morrie.

I asked Glenn how he liked the book, and he said, “Well, it’s all right. But what I’m interested in,” he said, “are the subjects that Mitch and Morrie did not discuss.” So I actually agreed with that, and I said, “Well, let’s do that. Let’s talk about those subjects.” And we decided our project would be called Thursdays with Glenn, and we might write a book about that. We talked a few times and corresponded for an all too brief period just before he died.

Near the end, Glenn told me something I’ll never forget. He was in a hospice, finally. His mother and father and sisters were members of a Christian Reformed congregation, a conservative Dutch family; but they had committed themselves to be with him all the way to the end. And they did that, as did other members of Fourth Church in Chicago, and finally, members of a caregiving team in the fine Presbyterian Church in Munster, Indiana, where Glenn’s hospice was.

I asked him a tough question. I asked him, “What’s the most difficult part of this?” And he said, “It’s in the evening. It’s in the evening when my parents have to leave, and I’m alone with my pain and weakness, and with one thought, the thought that I’m dying. But you know what I do?” he said. “I get out my tape player and earphones and I put in a tape of the 11:00 service at Fourth Church. I must have a hundred of them,” he said. “It settles me down, it helps me relax. Sometimes,” he said, “I fall asleep during the Prelude or the Anthem. And sometimes,” with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “I fall asleep during your sermon. But every night I go to sleep that way, in my bed, but also in my church.”

We are God’s vision for a divided world. You and we are what God means by unity and diversity. You and we are, in many ways I’m convinced we do not know, the body of Christ. Amen.

[Congregation] Amen.

 Charge and Benediction

By God’s amazing grace, we are the body of Christ. And because of that, let us go into the world in peace and courage, holding to the good, honoring all of God’s children, loving and serving the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

[Congregation] Amen.

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